Do Family Members Know When They Are Scapegoating You?

Do Family Members Know When They Are Scapegoating You?

A question I am often asked by clients and readers of my book, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed, is whether or not family scapegoating abuse (FSA) is conscious and intentional or unconscious and unintentional. My answer is that it can be either or both, and that nothing is simple or black and white when it comes to this uniquely complex family system process.

What (or Who) Is the Family Identified patient (IP)?

‘Identified Patient’ (IP) is a clinical term common to family systems and family therapy discussions. It is used to describe a family member who is bearing the intrapsychic conflicts held within the family via an unconscious family projection process, as well as the family’s multigenerational transmissions process, as described by the renowned early Family Systems theorist Murray Bowen.

The ‘designated IP’ may express the (dysfunctional) family’s pathology via physical symptoms or mental and emotional distress as a child or adult child. They may rebel and act out due to this hidden (and unbearably heavy) systemic burden; alternatively, they may become the family caretaker/empath and attempt to ‘fix’ the family (though they are rarely aware that this is what they are doing).

The family identified patient (IP) may be attuned to the fact that they are attracting negative attention or treatment from family members but may spend their entire life not ever understanding the root cause. This is in part because decades-old research related to Family Systems Theory and the Identified Patient role is rarely referenced or included in today’s self-help offerings addressing toxic families and family scapegoating, possibly because there is an assumption (or conviction) that family members always know when they are acting in harmful ways toward each other, despite well-established evidence to the contrary.

The Identified Patient and Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA)

In the Identified Patient family systems dynamic, the intense negative focus on the IP draws attention away from “the elephants in the living room” that no one in the family is able or willing to acknowledge or see, much less talk about directly and openly with each other. For example, parents who are struggling and unhappy in their marriage but unable to confront their issues or attend to their anxiety as a couple may unconsciously focus their anxiety on a particular child. This child may then begin ‘acting out’ their parents’ unaddressed anxiety, resulting in a negative feedback loop that leads to even more systemic anxiety and negative attention toward the family IP.

In a strange sense, the dysfunctional family / identified patient dynamic is somewhat reminiscent of Munchausen by proxy, whereby a parent receives attention by making their child sick and pretending to be a very concerned, devoted parent saddled with an unusually difficult parental burden – a phenomenon that I addressed with a colleague in a previous article, The Narcissistic Martyr Parent Ploy and the Scapegoat Child. (This article also provides clear examples of when family scapegoating abuse (FSA) is indeed conscious and intentional, something that can occur in families where one or more family members controlling the ‘family narrative’ has a mental illness or is personality disordered, narcissistic, sadistic, a sociopath, or similar.)

In this way, the family IP is a diversion of sorts, in that they are now the focus of the family’s unaddressed, unacknowledged anxiety and tension. In families who have unrecognized, unprocessed intergenerational trauma, this anxiety and tension can be extreme, resulting in severe scapegoating of the family IP (resulting in what I named family scapegoating abuse (FSA) during my research on the identified patient role).

In such instances, the family IP becomes the carrier of their family’s intergenerational trauma, leading to my hypothesis that those who find themselves in the painful family scapegoat role are not carrying the family’s ‘sins’; rather, they are carrying their family’s intergenerational trauma that has been reverberating throughout the family tree for generations.

Research Supporting the Reality of the IP Role

The term Identified Patient grew out of the work of the Bateson Project on family homeostasis as a way of identifying a largely unconscious pattern of behavior whereby an excess of painful feelings in a family lead to one member being identified as the cause of all the difficulties – a scapegoating of the IP.

Virginia Satir, an early pioneer in the field of Family Systems and a gifted and creative practitioner, viewed the identified patient as the family’s way of both showing and hiding their ‘secret agenda’. Therapy was focused on relieving the family IP of the burdensome family feelings, conflicts, and projections they had been unwittingly carrying on their dysfunctional family’s behalf. In this way, the family could confront their internalized systemic anxiety in a safe and supportive environment with the therapist protecting the family IP from further harm (something that does not happen often enough today when therapists who have little training in Family Systems attempt to treat families who scapegoat the family IP).

R. D. Laing saw the family IP as a function of the family nexus: “the person who gets diagnosed is part of a wider network of extremely disturbed and disturbing patterns of communication.” Later formulations of this hypothesis viewed the IP as an “emissary” of sorts that the family sent out into the wider world in an unconscious systemic call for help (yet another interesting twist on the biblical story of the scapegoat).

Abuse That Is Unconscious Is Still Abuse

Acknowledging that family scapegoating can sometimes be driven by unconscious, systemic processes does not mean that you were not seriously harmed by the actions of family members who have covertly or overtly abused you. As a Family Systems therapist who acknowledges that the family scapegoating abuse you have been subjected to may have been unconscious on your family’s part, I am not giving your abusive family members a ‘free pass’.

I also disagree with those who say that abuse is only abuse when it is intentional, because in my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth. If you have been the victim of covert or overt abuse that was unconscious and unintentional, you are still a victim of abuse, and you are entitled to the same type of social support and acknowledgement of your pain and suffering that other abuse survivors receive. And yet, sadly, you and I both know that you will rarely experience this, because most people (especially people who grew up in healthy, functional families) could not possibly understand the insidious, soul-crushing forces at work in a family suffering from generations of trauma and systemic dysfunction that scapegoats one of their own.

Perhaps one day, with enough education (as with the #metoo movement), the support, validation, and acknowledgement FSA adult survivors so richly deserve will be forthcoming. Until then, know that those of us who have been through the emotional and psychological ravages of being the target of family scapegoating abuse dynamics understand.

If you learned something of value from this article, considering sharing it via the social media icons located below my author bio.


Gray, Don; Weinberg, Jerry (2006). “The Identified Patient Pattern”The AYE Conference Exploring Human Systems in Action. The 2006 AYE Conference. Archived from the original on 2013-01-17. Retrieved 2016-07-20.

Robin Skynner/John Cleese, Families and how to survive them (London 1994) p. 103

 Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) p. 237 and p. 243

 R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience (Penguin 1984) p. 94

12 thoughts on “Do Family Members Know When They Are Scapegoating You?

  1. There are so many contributing factors to FSA. Alcoholism. Inability to understand Children, who seem to be intuitive and empathic. Both my parents knew nothing about parenting or taking care of a household because they both had Nannies. My Father was shipped off to boys boarding school at the age of six. All he knew were terrible boys behaviors. As the Scapegoat in my family I was always belittled and thought of as a “bad” child. I was always shamed by my Father and that was what he passed down through the family about me.

    1. Indeed, family members that scapegoat invariably have issues stemming from their own childhood development, including being the scapegoat or feeling rejected in some way by their parents themselves. When treating families with a scapegoating parent, I invariably uncovered significant trauma, either to them personally when young, or via unrecognized trauma stemming back through previous generations. Thank you for taking the time to comment – And you are so right: There are so many contributing factors to FSA.

  2. I just wanted to say Thank You, I recently purchased and have read your book. Simply finding you and your work has been an enormous help and comfort to me. I find being made family scapegoat consciously or unconsciously is an extremely frustrating distressing position to be in, due to the isolation; negative projections, misperceptions, denial; lack of validation; and support. I have found your writings to be immensely soothing simply for demonstrating understanding, which for me that is worth far more than its weight in Gold! I’ve been plugging your name and book on Tik Tok lately on people’s content related to scapegoating in the hope that others will find you and gain the comfort that I have so gratefully from all the vitally important, beneficial and valuable work you have done.
    Thanks again eternally
    Jane xxx

    1. Hi Jane, your comment means much to me, and I appreciate you sharing my work with others on social media. Sadly, much of the research (and clinical wisdom) that emerged from Family Systems Theory and practice is being lost today in the self-help field and in the media. it is always refreshing to hear from people like you who value and appreciate this perspective, and find it genuinely helpful. Wishing you the very best in your recovery.

  3. This is a big question with which I have grappled. How can my mother, who is aware of how she was mistreated by her mother, not know she is mistreating her daughter the same way? Or, if she does, how can someone who works to be so scrupulously kind and charming with people, and believes she is such a good Christian with church every Sunday and bible every evening, accept such cruelty in her own behavior, and towards her daughter?

    The only acceptable answer I have found is that it doesn’t matter. Either way, they will find an excuse to absolve themselves of any responsibility and justify what they did.

    I suppose like all dysfunctional families, what everyone does best is avoid responsibility for their behavior. My father’s verbal abuse was his “prerogative as a father.” The problem is my “anger, anger, anger. That’s all you are, an angry person,” not that my sister talks to me in bible quotes. My mother even offloads responsibility for her responsibility: “Gee, I really didn’t know. What should I have done?” My sister will text me saying she wants to have “a relationship” with me, then spend the next 15 lines complaining how it is my fault that she is prevented from having that relationship. If I ask something they don’t like, they answer me as if I am too stupid to open the umbrella in my hand while standing in the rain.

    They feel too much shame to not know what they are doing is wrong (and for which they then punish me), and are too avoidant of reality to believe anything but they are the victim and didn’t do anything wrong. The point is that I am bad and they feel better. It is a world in which only they can live.

    1. I think you are speaking for many scapegoated people via your shared experiences and observations, myself included. For some, however, learning about Family Systems Theory and critically valuable research on dysfunctional families and the family identified Patient (IP) helps to make some sense of the nonsensical. As one dear lady in her eighties once wrote to me, “I never understood what had happened to me in my family. I may not have much longer to live, but I can finally die with some peace.”

  4. I’m just going through therapy now, an age 66 retired professional career woman, and am the family scapegoat. I’m the eldest of five (sister and three brothers) and now realize they’ve been brainwashed by our mother to act as her scapegoating abuse agents with/for her all of these decades. It’s getting worse as we get older, mom is 88 and still abusing me at full force, directly or through her agents. We all live very far apart in different states so it’s mostly done online. My sister is mom’s primary agent and they gossip and set things up to, as mom calls it, “set her off”.

    The final straw was a couple of weeks ago when sister emailed out of the blue to say she thinks mom pits us against each other. I took the bait and replied in agreement and shared a narcissistic mother podcast. Her reply was “I wish you had a better relationship with mom”. At that point I had been working towards very low contact (mailing holiday cards only) with all of them.

    The sticking point was that my sister has booked herself into a vacation cottage in my neighborhood without even asking if we’d be here. My therapist helped me be able to stand up to her and I emailed her with one line: “Turns out we won’t be around then”. We have another place to go. I had worried and ruminated over this for weeks, it felt like such an intrusion. I was afraid that I’d be running from her, but realize instead that I’m running back towards MY life. I want my time back, all the time they’ve used up to torment me. I know now that if they know what they’re doing, or not, it hurts me. That’s all that matters.

    1. Hi Theresa, your story mirrors that of so many FSA survivors. Scapegoating parents do indeed teach siblings how to perpetuate the scapegoating of the family IP – it is in part a learned behavior, and they are also in a sense given the “kool-aid” to drink – this being the false “rejecting, shaming, and blaming” family scapegoat narrative, often since childhood.

      It can also be a big surprise to many FSA adult survivors when their scapegoating parent dies (or deteriorates cognitively due to stroke, dementia, etc) and one or more siblings whom they were formerly on good terms with suddenly run down the field with this same scapegoating narrative. It can sometimes start right there at the funeral (I’ve seen many instances of this as a family therapist). In a strange way, this can be an unconscious way of keeping the parent alive – a reaction to the family system homeostasis being shaken due to the death of the patriarch or matriarch.

      You said it all right here: “I was afraid that I’d be running from her, but realize instead that I’m running back towards MY life. I want my time back, all the time they’ve used up to torment me. I know now that if they know what they’re doing, or not, it hurts me. That’s all that matters.” May others learn from your courageous choice of protecting yourself from further harm.

  5. Some years ago, I had occasion to compare two different kinds of abuse, one of which seemed deliberate, while the other pattern may have been unconscious due to the abusers’ inability to recognize, let alone deal with, what was really bothering them.

    A woman was having a frustrating time trying to get what she needed from a government official, and she warned her child not to get too close to her because she was ready to lash out. A while later, my son (who was 9 years old at the time) saw the woman hit her child so hard that he fell to the floor. The child protection agency was nearby, and I accompanied my son while he reported the incident to them. They had already apprehended the woman, but they thanked my son for having the courage to make the report.

    Then I thought about how my parents would have behaved if they had been in the woman’s situation. They would not have hit anyone (or raised their voices or used foul language) – but, sooner or later, out of nowhere, they would have found fault with the child’s appearance/behaviour/character/whatever. He might have discovered that he was breaking a rule that he didn’t know existed, or that an innocent observation about some ordinary thing was a huge threat to the adults, or that he was “ungrateful” for something.

    In the hypothetical situation, my parents would not have blamed the child for the outcome of the meeting with the official (for one thing, they wouldn’t have been able to admit that the outcome wasn’t what they expected), nor did the physically abusive woman blame the child in the actual situation, but the woman’s understanding of her own stress was different from what my parents’ would have been:

    The woman was clear that her problem was with the official, that she gave herself permission to lash out when she felt powerless, and that the child had the misfortune to enter her space at the wrong time.

    My parents would have taken the position that they were fine, that the encounter with the official was fine, and that their stress was all about the child, whose innate characteristics were all wrong and were an embarrassment to them.

    The woman’s clarity in no way excused her assault on her child, but I have wondered whether my parents’ attitude was actually more psychologically damaging, because there was no way to predict or escape the character assassination, which is like being stabbed in the core of one’s being. Even worse, it would not have looked like abuse even to the same child protection people who apprehended the physically abusive woman.

    1. Extraordinarily insightful observations, Suzanne. I hope readers here take the time to read your story as it perfectly captures the devastating nature of family scapegoating abuse (FSA) and why it is so insidious and damaging to the child / adult child.

  6. Thank you again Rebecca. You have touched my life in a profoundly beneficial way, you name will forever resonate as a key important figure & I will be eternally grateful.
    Much love & respect to you. Jane x

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